The Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pa., have launched what they describe as a lay monastic movement for seekers of God and a meaningful life, calling it “our gift to the next generation.”
“Monasteries of the Heart: A New Movement for a New World” offers an opportunity for anyone — regardless, or even in the absence, of faith tradition — to live Benedictine spirituality and values with online communities or in face-to-face groups of family, friends, neighbors or fellow churchgoers, they said.
Members create their own “monastery” by supporting each other in shaping their spiritual lives around Benedictine values of community, prayer, meaningful work, peace and care of creation. They can gather around a table or in an online “monastery without walls” for prayer, discussion and reflection.
When our own online faith community began, there were many naysayers and skeptics. You can`t have a real community unless you gather face to face, they said. What you have is nice, but you really shouldn`t call yourself a community in the traditional sense.
The defense of online communities was a personal issue for me. I was an online student for many years. With five children, office responsibilities, and the geographical reality of rural life it was the only option for me to continue my studies. My blood boiled anytime someone insinuated that my courses and programs were of less quality than an in-class situation.
Whether online or in-person, the quality of learning depends on the instructor and the students. But, online discussion boards are a great equalizer compared to in-class discussions. Everyone has a chance to speak. In my classes, participation was compulsory and carried high expectations of critical reading and thinking. With online discussions, you have the chance to ponder before you speak – so words are chosen carefully. And if there is a verbose know-it-all, and there always is, you can quickly scroll through their pontificating rather than sit through a long-winded dissertation. The quality of discussion allowed for a more intimate interaction than is usually found in a large lecture hall.
The asynchronous nature of online discussion boards also allow participants to post or read on their own schedule. This is a major bonus in our over-scheduled, busy lives. It also allows us to communicate across many miles and cultures, regardless of time zones. An online faith community can have these same benefits of equality, inclusivity and intimacy.
According to some of the comments on the NCR article, Monasteries of the Heart already has its share of naysayers. Some question the orthodoxy of what the Sisters are doing. Sadly, they miss the point. A major goal of this project is to reach out to those who are hungering for spirituality, but are not finding it in traditional places. And this is what the Benedictine Sisters are offering. They are taking the centuries old tradition of Benedictine spirituality, wrapping it up in a new package, and offering it in the form of online or in-person monasteries. Members can gather around a kitchen table, or their computer screens. What a creative reading and responding to the signs of the times!